22 Jan 2009

Landmark compensation case for veterans of British nuclear tests in Pacific underway

2:34 pm on 22 January 2009

A scientific study undertaken by Massey University in New Zealand is now at the centre of a landmark compensation case for veterans of British nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1950s.

New Zealanders have joined with Fijians and hundreds of former British service personnel to sue the British government for millions of dollars in compensation for illnesses they say they got from exposure to radiation.

Ben Lowings reports from London.

"New Zealanders were among those who watched a series of nuclear explosions at Christmas Island in 1957 and 1958. They've long complained that afterwards they fell ill because of the fallout -- they blamed the tests for cancers, skin defects and fertility problems. After fifty years of waiting, this was their first court hearing in Britain. At the High Court in London, the courtroom was so packed that some veterans had to sit on the floor. The judge, Mr Justice Foskett, heard that a New Zealand study had proven that most members of small group of test veterans suffered genetic damage owing to radiation exposure. The Ministry of Defence says compensation is only paid when there is a proven legal liability. It's expected to argue that the claim is being lodged too late. The initial hearing is expected to last three weeks."

Outside the court the veterans recalled what they were ordered to do in the 1950s.

Sit down, turn your back to the bomb, and then they began to countdown, and then the bomb went off and then after a couple of seconds you were told to turn around and then look at it. You had no protection, none at all, a pair of shorts and a pair of boots and a hat, and the back of my head and the top of my head was completely burnt, I had crust on my scalp for about two to three years.

Some of the veterans have died waiting for the case to be heard.